Breaking queer waves: A recap of the Polari Prize 2023


Elena Savvas (she/they) discusses the history, importance, nominations and winners of this year’s UK LGBTQ+ book prize

Article Image

Image by kargaltsev, Flickr

By Elena Savvas

The end of November saw the hotly contested announcement of the winners of this year’s Polari book prize. Endless media publications have been writing on who - excuse the pun - is “coming out tops”, but it feels imperative to discuss the other nominees and history of the award itself. After such a prolific year in the world of queer literature, perhaps this announcement calls for a little more discussion than who took home the perennial trophy at the British Library on November 24th.
The award celebrates two winners annually, one for the official Polari Book Prize and the other for the Polari First Book Prize, and has been platforming LGBTQ+ writers since 2011. It is run by the Polari Literary Salon, a collective dedicated to showcasing upcoming UK queer literary talent, and judged by queer writers themselves. It was founded by Paul Burston in 2007, who is known for his writing, journalism, and most notably, his activism. As we have just passed International AIDS Day on December 1st, and generally too, it is vital to highlight Burston’s involvement with the UK dissection of the ACT UP movement, and his powerful and transformative writing about the epidemic ever since. With the history of the Polari Prize pointing to a writer credited by Bernadine Evaristo for their “ruthless honesty and brave emotional vulnerability” in depicting their experience of the crisis as filled with experiences of nihilistic “intoxication and compulsive sex”, one can naturally expect the award to reflect unadulterated, political queer realities within its queer fictions.
Impressively, a mix of both independent and wholesale publishers made up the shortlists of both categories, including various memoirs alongside poetry collections, historical re-tellings and experimental magic realism. The recurrence of the memoir form is notable: this year’s award has broken the record for the highest number of memoirs nominated in Polari history. The memoir holds such an important space in queer literary history, in the UK and globally, as autobiographical writing has served, and still serves, to represent the diversity of personal realities that have been neglected in the mainstream. Perhaps this indicates a post-pandemic desire for first-person narrativity: after getting used to solo existence, who wouldn’t feel more inclined toward jumping into somebody else’s psyche. Amongst these memoirs there is editor-in-chief of British Vogue Edward Enninful’s A Visible Man, which recalls his experiences as a Black, working-class, gay man in the elite fashion sphere, and Love from the Pink Palace by renowned activist Jill Nader, who is known for inspiring Channel 4’s ‘It’s a Sin’. Travis Alabanza’s outward-facing exploration of their non-binary identity None of the Above: Reflections of Life Beyond the Binary was nominated too, marking an important milestone for trans voices in the height of governmental anti-trans law and rhetoric.
Organisers have credited the 2023 shortlist as inhabiting “queer utopias, impassioned memoirs and exquisite prose”. This was, of course, reflected in the two writers that took away the final prize. The winner of the Polari Prize went to Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea, the story of a relationship between two women that was transformed by a dive onto a mysterious, gothic underwater vessel, credited for its genre-bending between the sublime and the grotesque, the romantic and the horrific. The winner of the Polari First Book Prize went to Jon Ransom’s The Whale Tattoo, continuing the bodies of water theme, which details a love story plagued by a sea-spell that comes to emblematise an inherited trauma, resembling that of survivor’s guilt. In both works, despite the weight of their difference, the sea washes up all sorts of memories and prophecies. Both writers toy with a sense of pastness, forming a connection with the traumas of the queer past that continue to haunt the everyday, including the aforementioned not-so-distant lives lost at the hands of AIDS. “Queer utopias” perhaps seems a problematic description here, however it is undeniable that these hauntings exist alongside a look toward a queer future, as both writers (and many others short-listed for the prize) partake in space making practises that transform the literary sphere into one that can inhabit the oppressed, the transgressive. Both Armfield and Ransom are undeniably deserving of their recognition.
However, it still bears importance to question the lack of diversity in this year’s listings, and throughout the history of the award in general. Both Armfield and Ransom are white authors, as is the majority of the shortlist. Additionally, the 2023 nominations have seen various recurring authors from the 2022 nominations, including some that have been involved in the administration and judging of the prize itself. This is not to discredit their outstanding works and achievements, but to pose the question: can we really award first-place prizes in queer literature? Doesn’t this oppose the radical collectivity embedded within the word ‘queer’? As water flows between fictions and washes up queer genealogies, perhaps we ought to put down our trophies and swim in the chaos?